Earwig and the Witch, from Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, is Studio Ghibli’s first foray into 3D CG animation… and stands as perhaps the studio’s worst film.
I love Studio Ghibli, and I love Hayao Miyazaki. The Ghibli films (mostly) hold a special place in my heart. My son sleeps with a stuffed Totoro each night. Miyazaki’s vibrant sense of imagination has regularly been brought to life through color-soaked intimacy of his art. His contributions and leadership have made Studio Ghibli perhaps the gold standard in conventional animation. I say all of that to give context to what I’m about to say. Earwig and the Witch, directed by Hayao’s son Goro, is the studio’s first 3D CG animated film. It also the worst the film to ever carry the Ghibli name.
I am hardly an elitist about animation style – I love CG animated movies. Few films have given me the amount of joy I’ve received from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or most of Pixar’s catalogue. Again, that is context for what I’m about to say, Earwig and the Witch is hideous. The character designs are cold and expressionless. Each character, even the titular Earwig, feels animated with the care and thought of the renderings in the cut scenes of 15 years old video games. Here, they don’t even bother to hint at fur on their cat’s design.
The animation itself is staid and lazily rendered; the film’s clear budgetary constrains are laid bare by strange framing choices. A cooking scene studiously avoids showing the inside of the various pots. Where Pixar would lovingly render each and every bit of beef in a shepherd’s pie, Goro Miyazaki cannot be bothered to animate basic cooking. I do not demand fidelity to real life in animation. I loved the Sundance documentary Flee, which frequently expresses through bursts of highly stylized, nearly impressionistic color. Earwig and the Witch’s response technically difficult shots is lazy avoidance.
So frequently Studio Ghibli achieves much of its greatest emotion from the artistry of its visual compositions. I suspect most can remember the feeling of wonder inspired by Catbus’ first appearance in My Neighbor Totoro, the humor of Kiki’s cat dangling from a broom stick in Kiki’s Delivery Service or the solemn beauty of the titular insects of Grave of the Fireflies. Moro, the wolf in Princess Mononoke, and No Face, the omnipresent silent specter of Spirited Away, stand out as two of the many brilliant, iconic designs Ghibli has given us. Let’s be kind and say Hot Topic will not be selling Earwig T-Shirts and plush dolls six months from now.
Now, of course, none of this would matter if the story here was special. Unfortunately, Earwig and the Witch feels like a muddled mixture of better fantasy stories. Here we have the orphan child of a witch, who is adopted by another witch and her demonic housemate. Hoping to learn magic, Earwig is disappointed that she’s given the Cinderella treatment and used as a house hand. Eventually, of course, she begins to find ways to explore magic on her own. The beats are familiar and predictable, but here even what should be comfortable story telling comes off as muddled. I’m not sure if it is a result of the editing or the original source material, but I found the film’s plot arch somewhat impenetrable. The film’s ending simply makes no sense, as plot threads raised with great impart in the film’s opening scenes are tossed away without explanation. It feels almost like a surprise ending to a streaming show designed to get you to click through to the next episode.
While I understand the English dub has voice actors I like such as Richard E. Grant and Dan Stevens, I watched the film in Japanese. Leaving aside the cognitive dissonance of a film set in England with English writing and books but made in Japanese, all of the Japanese voice actors are effective. Each seems reasonably well cast and elevates the dialogue with energetic performances.
It gives me no joy to call Earwig and the Witch Studio Ghibli’s worst film. Mercifully, the studio’s next project appears to be a conventional animated film from Hayao himself. Perhaps the Ghibli team will someday learn to work their magic in the 3D CG space, but I would sure prefer to see them defending their throne as the greatest house of conventional animation from strong upstarts like Cartoon Saloon.